The grand Western Alliance that won the Cold War now seems inevitable, but it was a chancy thing indeed in the early days after World War II. As diplomatic historian Robert L. Beisner notes, France and Britain could have rejected cooperation with the hated Germans. France could have turned to the Soviet Union for protection from Germany. Italy could have gone communist. Greece and Turkey could have gone to war. All were real possibilities. The fact that NATO instead became the reality was due in no small measure to the skills of Dean Acheson, President Truman's secretary of state from 1949 to 1952 and the subject of Beisner's triumphantly authoritative new biography, Dean Acheson: A Life in the Cold War. Beisner, the author of previous books on 19th-century American diplomacy, focuses in his 800-plus pages on Acheson's State Department career, though he includes a brief introduction and coda on his earlier and later years. Throughout, he emphasizes Acheson's close relationship with Truman, the odd but genuine friendship between the cerebral son of the Yale establishment and the feisty Midwestern populist. Acheson believed the Soviet Union would ultimately have to cave before such a military-economic force, and he was right. Along with his integration of Japan into what was then called the Free World, this was Acheson's most stunning achievement. But Beisner also highlights Acheson's considerably more checkered record everywhere except Europe. Bored by and scornful of non-European cultures, he saw everything through a European prism, often with flawed results. With the benefit of hindsight, Acheson's most obvious error was his failure to end support for France in Indochina, a consequence of his focus on wooing French participation in European integration. The policy ultimately led his successors to the Vietnam War. And we are still feeling the fallout of his similar weakness for British colonial intransigence in Iran and Egypt today. Although Beisner contends that Acheson was our best secretary of state, he takes the time to describe and answer the arguments of his critics. The bottom line for Beisner is the nature of Acheson's enemies. He may not have handled Mao, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, or the McCarthyites terribly well, Beisner says, but it's unlikely anyone else could have done better. As for the Soviet Union, Beisner agrees with Acheson that attempting serious negotiations with Stalin would have been a dangerous waste of time.

The fact is, Beisner writes, Acheson's personality was so glaring, it is nearly impossible to imagine his being appointed to high office in our own times.'' Beisner's impressive work convinces his readers that it's our loss. Anne Bartlett is a journalist in Washington, D.C.


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